When the Russian air force entered Syrian airspace last September, three of the president’s aims seemed clear.
The first was to salvage the crumbling regime of Bashar al-Assad. The second was to re-establish Russia as an important actor in the Middle East. Mr Putin, who mocks the US and Europe for the fiascos of their regime-changing adventures from Iraq to Libya, also clearly intended to teach the west a lesson — and so relieve western pressure resulting from his own intervention in Ukraine. The lesson turned out to be a Russian remake of “shock and awe“.
From the outset Russian warplanes struck at Sunni rebels threatening Damascus and Mr Assad’s coastal enclave in north-west Syria, rather than at Isis jihadis — a declared target of the operation. He used peace negotiations jointly chaired with the US in Geneva as a smokescreen behind which to lay waste to any middle ground between the Assad regime and Isis. This showed up the west as too feckless to help Sunni rebels whom the US and regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey had backed against the Assads.
The regime regained ground. More refugees swarmed to the Turkish border. Mr Putin’s Syria policy was doing double duty as his European policy
, exacerbating the migrant crisis pulling the EU apart, and polarising the politics of some of its member states.
A bonus for Mr Putin was to add to the discomfiture of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, through whose territory runs the refugee road to Europe. Having already contributed to the de facto partition of Syria by hardening the defences of the Assad statelet, Mr Putin then extended Russia’s complicit support to US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia, whose fight against Isis is enabling them to assemble a Kurdish entity below Turkey’s border, the dissolution of which is now Mr Erdogan’s paramount aim.
对普京而言，额外收获是让土耳其总统雷杰普•塔伊普•埃尔多安(Recep Tayyip Erdogan)的处境更为难堪，该国是移民前往欧洲的通路。通过加强阿萨德统辖领土的防务力量，助推叙利亚的事实分裂后，普京又为得到美国支持的叙利亚库尔德民兵组织提供支持，这些组织与ISIS的斗争使他们得以在土耳其边境下方集结为一个库尔德人群体。促使这个群体解体是埃尔多安目前的首要目标。
But what is the Kremlin’s game now? The Russian pullback coincides with the resumption of peace talks in Geneva. Despite this month’s partial ceasefire in Syria, these still look forlorn, even if Mr Putin says his aim was always to create conditions for a political transition out of the war.
He might conclude that Mr Assad has no long-term future. His minority regime has committed mass murder among the majority Sunni population. Why incur the bitter enmity of Sunnis in Syria, throughout the Middle East and inside Russia’s borders? Russia arguably has most to fear from foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq — Isis typically expends European volunteers as suicide bombers to clear a path for elite fighters such as battle-hardened Chechens.
Iran, which jointly holds Mr Assad as a ward of state, may also judge that to continue along Russia’s scorched-earth path in Syria would scupper its re-engagement with the west and sabotage any chance it has of being accepted as a legitimate regional power by Sunni Arabs. Russian and Iranian ministers have met several times in Tehran and Moscow over the past month.
So far, so many hypotheses. As some Russian jets start withdrawing, only Mr Putin — the geopolitical puppeteer with a taste for intrigue — can know if this is the start of Syria’s endgame.